Project Management Institute

Coping with stress in organizational roles through team learning


Role stress is a well-researched topic at the level of the individual. It has been much less extensively investigated at the level of teams. Project teams are susceptible to role stress because for each project the distribution of roles within the team is newly established. Previous studies have shown that extended role stress may lead to reduced performance. One central question addressed in this paper is whether role stress at team level is related to lower team performance. The second question is whether team learning helps to reduce role stress, and hence, improve performance.


Role stress is a natural and unavoidable phenomenon in any organizational setting, particularly in boundary-spanning positions (Goolsby, 1992), such as those of project teams. High levels of role stress, though, may have a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of a person executing a role (Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, & Rosenthal, 1964), and hence, on the performance of the project team. Different means of reducing role stress, such as restructuring role distribution, (de)formalization of roles and empowerment of individuals, have been investigated (Wetzels, de Ruyter, & Bloemer, 2000). These means require the involvement of others outside the project team, notably higher management. However, project teams are relatively autonomous and relatively short-lived. Their relative autonomy reduces the ability of others outside the team to take measures to reduce role stress. It is the team itself which must learn to cope with role stress. Because of their relative short life span, teams must learn to cope rapidly. This paper aims to describe the differences between teams that are effective in reducing levels of role stress through team learning and those that are not or less effective in doing so. Project-oriented organizations can benefit from the results of this study by helping their teams implement the types of learning behavior, which is most effective in reducing stress and thus improving project performance.

From a more academic perspective, the ability to learn and the ability to share what has been learned is mentioned as one of the five major directions for future research in project management by the Rethinking Project Management Network (Winter, Smith, Morris, & Cicmil, 2006). With regard to the causes and effects of role stress, this study intends to expand our knowledge of this phenomenon as role stress has hardly been investigated in the contexts of projects and, amazingly, at the level of teams.

Three concepts are central to our study: role stress (both at the individual and at the team level), team learning, and team performance. The core question that we will address is: Does team learning influence the relationship between role stress and team performance in project teams? We expect that project teams that show higher levels of team learning will also show a less significant (or insignificant) correlation between role stress and team performance. Our reasoning is that learning behavior helps project teams to reduce levels of role stress and prevent the consequences of extended role stress, such as tension, low job involvement, and low performance.


Role Stress

Following Kahn et al. (1964), we define role stress as a composite construct consisting of role conflict and role ambiguity and following later studies of role overload. Role conflict refers to “the simultaneous occurrence of two (or more) sets of pressures such that compliance with one would make more difficult compliance with the other” (Kahn et al., 1964, p. 19). Role ambiguity occurs when a person does not have access to sufficient information to perform his or her role adequately. Role overload occurs when a person does not have sufficient time or resources to comply with expectations even when there is no role conflict or ambiguity. A role is distinguished from a task in the sense that role behaviors can include expectations not necessarily defined in the task or tasks at hand.

A majority of all research on role stress has used the scales developed by Rizzo, House, and Lirtzman (1970). Because of their extensive use, these scales have come under close scrutiny for their psychometric properties. Jackson and Schuler (1985) who reviewed many of these investigations concluded that “In general, the results suggest that role conflict and ambiguity are valid constructs in organizational behavior research and are usually associated with negative values; e.g., tension, absenteeism, low satisfaction, low job involvement, low expectancies and task characteristics with low motivating potential” (p.17).

Negative relationships between role stress and job performance can be explained by cognitive and motivational processes. Cognitive, because of the lack of information to solve conflicting demands and motivational, because role stress tends to weaken effort-to-performance and performance-to-reward expectancies (Tubre & Collins, 2000).

From the many studies on role stress, it appears that there are several organizational context factors that influence levels of role stress, such as autonomy, feedback from others, feedback from task, task identity, leadership, and participation. Although it has been theorized often that individual characteristics, such as locus of control, age, tenure, education, and self-esteem, also have a strong influence on levels of role stress it appears that the empirical correlations are much less strong.

During the past 40 years, most of the more than 400 empirical investigations into the causes and effects of role stress have focused on the individual role incumbent. Although this is very much in line with the original role performance model introduced by Kahn (1964), it is amazing that over the years, the group or team level effects have not been researched more extensively, especially since the wave of studies into autonomous or self-directing teams has come up. Project teams are more or less self-directed. It can be hypothesized, for instance, that intra-team interaction mitigates the perceived levels of role stress of the individual team members. Our study aims to explore this hypothesis.

Team Learning

Although much research has been done among samples of teams and on the topic of learning in organizations, relatively little is known about team learning (c.f., Edmondson, 1999). In defining the concept of team learning, some researchers have emphasized the process of learning (e.g., Edmondson, 1999, 2002; Gibson & Vermeulen, 2003; Kasl, Marsick, & Dechant, 1997), while others have stressed its outcomes (e.g., Ellis, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, Porter, West, & Moon, 2003).

Team learning behavior implies some kind of positive change (created or intended by certain activities), whether in understanding, knowledge, ability/skill, processes/routines, or systemic coordination (Edmondson, Dillon, & Roloff, 2007). Past research has suggested that teams can differ considerably in the extent to which they (intentionally or not) engage in team learning behaviors and that a positive relationship exists between these learning behaviors and team performance (e.g., Edmondson, 1999; Gibson & Vermeulen, 2003; Van der Vegt & Bunderson, 2005).

However, less is clear about the causal direction of the relationship between team learning behaviors and team performance. Does a high level of team performance result in more team learning behaviors or does a large number of team learning behaviors result in a higher level of team performance? Additionally, more research is needed to understand which concrete team learning behaviors contribute most (e.g, Argyris & Schön, 1978; Edmondson, 1999; Gibson & Vermeulen, 2003).

Outcome definitions of team learning are often described in terms of changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes resulting from interactions among the team members (e.g., Argote, Insko, Yovetich, & Romero, 1995; Ellis et al., 2003). So-called process definitions of team learning often capture components such as reflection and action (Edmondson, 1999; 2002; Gibson & Vermeulen, 2003; Tjosvold, Tang, & West, 2004), sharing and processing knowledge, and making improvements (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Edmondson, 2002; Gibson, 2001). Some researchers have described concrete team learning behaviors associated with these components, such as asking questions, challenging assumptions, evaluating alternatives, seeking feedback, experimenting, reflecting on results, detecting, discussing and correcting errors, and reflective communication (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Edmondson, 1999; Gibson & Vermeulen, 2003; Kasl et al., 1997; Van der Vegt & Bunderson, 2005).

Our investigation follows the stream of research that is based upon process definitions of team learning (Edmondson et al., 2007). More specifically, we adhere to the rich definition of team learning behavior that was adopted by Edmondson (1999). As previous research within this stream has incorporated different measures in order to operationalize the concept of team learning (Edmondson et al., 2007), differences in research outcomes may be better explained by focusing upon different aspects (and hence, different measures) of team learning.

Team Performance

It is difficult to come up with an unambiguous and conclusive definition for the concept of team performance. A wide range of performance indicators, such as operational outcomes, financial outcomes, behavioral outcomes, or attitudinal outcomes may be used in order to investigate teams in organizations (Delarue, Van Hootegem, Procter & Burridge, 2004). This study takes into account those performance indicators that refer to the extent of accomplishment of the team’s specific tasks. We leave out the behavioral and attitudinal performance indicators, because of their possible overlap with various team learning behaviors, those being the predictor variables.

In line with this, we argue that work teams are composed in the light of a performance purpose. As such, we define team performance using Hackman’s (1987) concept of task performance, being the degree to which a team meets its goals and how well its output fulfils the team’s mission. Following other studies on team performance, we investigated the team’s general work performance as compared to other teams (e.g., De Jong, Van der Vegt, Molleman & Bunderson, 2007).


Research Approach

The investigation which is reported in this paper represents phase 1 of a three-phased approach. Phase 1 consists of a cross-sectional study among up to 40 project teams in the areas of engineering, building, infrastructure, and information technology. In this phase, we will test the validity of our survey instrument and our basic model. In this model, team learning is seen as a moderator in the relationship between role conflict and team performance.

In phase 2, we intend to focus on approximately 20 project teams and investigate, through interviews and direct observation, team behavior over time. The objective is to gain a better understanding of the various ways in which teams reduce levels of role stress. This phase is intended to result in raw scripts describing different strategies for reducing role stress and enhancing team learning within project teams.

In phase 3, the raw scripts will be transformed into easy to use instructions. These instructions will be field tested in a sample of up to 15 project teams. Hence, the ultimate objective of our study is to deliver methods for reducing role stress and enhancing team learning which can be applied in practice by project teams.

Survey instruments

The survey consists of:

  • Open-ended questions to measure (1) size, complexity, and current phase of the project and (2) size and composition of the project team.
  • Open ended questions to measure the age, sex, tenure, and degree of project involvement of the respondents.
  • Likert-type questions to assess frequency of internal feedback, external feedback, task interdependence within the team, project manager leadership style, job satisfaction, role stress (both at the individual and the team level), team task identity, team learning behavior, and team performance (assessed by team members and clients).

All scales covering role stress, job satisfaction, leadership style, task interdependence, and task identity have been derived from previously developed and validated instruments. New scales were developed for team learning behavior and team performance. These have been tested in a validation study among 19 teams (Savelsbergh, van der Heijden, & Poell, 2008).


Data collection took place from June to August 2008. At the time of submission of this paper (July 2008), 16 teams have completed their surveys. Analysis of the data will be completed by the end of September. Analysis of the data will be presented at the PMI Global Conference in Denver, CO.

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The research described in this paper was made possible by a grant from the Project Management Institute (PMI) Inc., USA. We are grateful for the support given to us by the representatives of PMI.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, Ben Kuipers, Chantal Savelsbergh, Peter Storm
Originally published as part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings-Denver Colorado, USA



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